SoulTrain

FOTOFRIDAY: Seek Silence; Create Beauty

Posted on: Friday, July 17th, 2020
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“The whole world is at sixes and sevens and why the house hasn’t fallen down about our ears long ago is beyond me.” So says the omniscient maid, Sabrina, in the opening scene of Thornton Wilder’s 1942 Pulitzer-winning play, “The Skin of our Teeth.”

The show is about the never-ending vulnerability—and the resolute endurance—of the human race. The play’s three acts take place during an ice age, a great flood, and a horrific war. Were there a fourth act, a pandemic would fit right in.

Of late, lines and scenes from “The Skin of Our Teeth” sometimes echo through my head. (I was in the play as a child.) But such reveries feel like a luxury, because what’s often happening in our heads is the news of violence. Of scary health threats. Of disunity and anger and, above all, unprecedented uncertainty.

My wish for myself, and for all of us, is some silence. Stay informed and make your statements. But then turn off the noise. Seek the stillness—and listen to it. Create something of beauty, however esoteric or secret or temporary. After all, most of us are mostly stuck in place with some extra time on our hands.

Some day in the future, when we have returned to our busy, self-important routines, we may look back longingly at this unscheduled BreakAway.

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FOTOFRIDAY: Staycationeering

Posted on: Friday, June 19th, 2020
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  • My daughter quietly making art in a moment of staycation calm

It’s funny. Most people spend most of their lives answering “How are you?” with the impressive reply, “I’m so busy!” In normal times, we therefore likely long for a long BreakAway, a relaxing vacation, or even a therapeutic staycation. That word’s gotten super-hot lately, yet now many folks are screaming, “I’m so stir-crazy!”

Well, here’s your staycation opportunity, friends—a topic that deserves a closer look in a forthcoming posts—and certainly in my own muddled world. Have you made your wish-list? Clean closets? Plant shrubs? Read The Gifts of Imperfection? Zoom your faraway rellies?

My daughter often surprises me with her staycation instincts and gift of spontaneously launching projects that make something out of nothing. Like this watercolor of a recent picture. Who know she could even paint so well? Drawing (and sailing!) the Hjørdis isn’t easy! (I know; I took sailing classes on her!)

Oh sure, this photo is a mere memory snapshot; I didn’t want to interrupt a moment of peace, of inspiration. But it reminds us to use some spare moments during this gift of (messy) time to seek some calm, creativity, and beauty.

We need it, right? Keep the faith.

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FOTOFRIDAY: The Silence of the Loons

Posted on: Friday, June 12th, 2020
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Recently, friends took me out on a pontoon ride to share the secret location of the oh-so hidden loon nest. Lake Owasso, like most Minnesota lakes, gets one beloved loon pair per year. Loons are fiercely territorial, remarkably fearless, and absolutely mesmerizing to watch.

In the Real World, problems keep becoming more explosive. Sad. And Surreal. So seriously: I recommend loons. Or whatever miracle of nature may be in your path that takes your anxieties away, fills you with reverence, and inspires a moment of peace.

Loons can be loud. But my response is silence. And for a fleeting moment—when the loon allows—that quietude and awe is the best therapy I could ask for.

I shot this photo alone at dusk, via kayak and a long zoom lens. The loon was aware of my intrusion, but somehow trusted my intentions. And my desire to coexist with respect and silence.

Keep the faith.

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FOTOFRIDAY: We’ll Get Through This!

Posted on: Friday, April 17th, 2020
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The ice will melt. The kayak, like the people, will be able to move forward without fear of injury. A new season will arrive—that lets us run free and splash on each other. We may even open that Corona (beer) without making a bad joke!

Until then, assuming you are well, TRY to enjoy this unscheduled sabbatical. Stay safe. Stay sane.

Keep the faith.

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FOTOFRIDAY: Play Ball!

Posted on: Friday, February 7th, 2020
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To some of us, baseball remains a blissy mini-Breakaway. The game plays without a time clock, in the open air (ideally), and during the warm, long days. Oh sure, football has become WAY more popular, as presaged long ago by journalist Mary McGrory: “Baseball is what we were, and football is what we have become.”

But hey, football is finished for a while. Finally. And…

Next week, pitchers and catchers start reporting to pre-season practice—a rite of spring, of optimism, and of gentlemanly competition usually devoid of vulgarity and violence. We could use some of that in Washington, DC right about now. Although it’s worth noting that said city is presently home to the world champion Washington Nationals.

A sign of hope? Keep dreaming.

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FOTOFRIDAY: Ice Fishing BreakAways?

Posted on: Friday, January 3rd, 2020
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Throughout the past week, a friend has been sending me pics of his Florida beach vacation. He knows my love of all things warm, watery and beachy. He also knows I am mostly stuck in Minnesota during this holiday season, despite years of winter escapes for as long as 355 days. Or 4 months. Or 69 days. The longer, the better!

Things change. While I cherish those memories and pine for long winter getaways, I could do no better than to reply to my friend with this view from my desk—no need for 1,000 words.

Ice fishing BreakAways? Well, why not? For that guy, sitting on a frozen lake and hoping to land something fishy feels like a fun escape. A break from the grind. Some moments of peace and meditation, perhaps. Who needs surf, sun, sand?

I do. Yet I also know some are happy just to ice-fish. And that savvy, sane people pursue BreakAways wherever, whenever, and however.

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FOTOFRIDAY: ‘Tis the Season to be Musical

Posted on: Friday, December 20th, 2019
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See those angels on my piano? I hardly ever see them—because they are hidden inside the upright and only show up when the piano tuner opens up the instrument. It’s always a pleasure. But this time, I learned they’re not. Not angels. They’re flowers! Hand-painted inside this artisanal beauty. Imagine my disappointment—and during the holiday season, even!

Christmas takes a lot of knocks, deservedly so, since commercialism has taken over and drowned out the more celestial messages. So I listen instead to the music, since great Christmas music is abundant and timeless—whether from long-gone composers, Americana crooners, or contemporary creations.

I also enjoy playing Christmas music (especially when no one is listening). Few diversions offer such a complete, if temporary, BreakAway vibe.

One of my musical toys is this here Schimmel piano, hand-made in Faribault, MN. A German maker dating back to 1885, mine was crafted circa 1893, when the Schimmel family expanded to America for a short while and made only about 3,000 instruments. I am lucky to own one. And my Schimmel is lucky to have me—since old pianos often can’t find compassionate caretakers these days.

Got music? Play it. You’ll feel better, and fill your surroundings with angelic sounds.

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and may the peace be with you.

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FOTOFRIDAY: Sunrise, Sunset

Posted on: Friday, November 15th, 2019
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Which is it? One rarely knows at first glimpse (of a photo). And frankly, most of us can tire of looking at other people’s sunrise/set pics, right? So you need not look—or read—for long. It’s just that this is what I saw when I reluctantly got out of bed and faced the first snow on the water today. Winter’s battle of restful versus dreadful has begun.

The ice and lake water will also battle like this for, oh, weeks, maybe a month, maybe more. The beauty can almost—almost!—compete with a lush summer day. That opposing season’s warmth and light will return, or so we’re told.

Meanwhile, we’re now officially on thin ice. So be careful. And try to enjoy.

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A Farewell For the Cat Who Cured Cancer

Posted on: Wednesday, July 24th, 2019
Posted in: SoulTrain | 4 comments

Daisy came from a farm way outside of town run by a hard-working married couple, both vets. They raised Arabian horses, Corgi dogs, and Ragdoll cats on a sprawling but hidden acreage that would make English bluebloods jealous. Daisy was the tiniest creature there—the runt of the bunch who could barely muster a “Meow.”

“Oh, you won’t need that cage,” announced the lady of the estate, “She won’t prowl around or bother the driver.” And sure enough, within a few miles and a few meek “Meows,” as if finding her voice, she was freed from the cage and asleep on one of my offspring’s laps. My son immediately dubbed her Daisy. Gatsby would be proud.

She remained as gentle as a kitty until her time here ended, not long ago.

  • The Comfort Cat

When a disaster like cancer hits, you may feel and be alone. But Daisy, the Cat, was always there. Always. She feared no ills and knew her place: Atop my recliner, curled into my shoulders, and purring until the cows came home. She was a good kitty, and I often told her so. “You’re a good kitty, Daisy,” I’d say. She liked to tell me she was my “comfort cat.”

She was beautiful, and she knew it. I occasionally suggested she should become an Instagram star, but just rolled her eyes. “Look what happened to Grumpy Cat…” she’d reply, “She got grumpy—and then she died.” “Well, we’re all going to die, Daisy,” I reasoned. But she didn’t like that idea at all, “Speak for yourself, pretty boy. I’ve got 9 lives, you know.”

Ragdolls were invented in California in the 60s—designed to be gentle, smart, and dog-like (though she resented the comparison). She was the ideal pet for the years of raising my rambunctious children, comfortable in her own fur. The kids would drag her around like a, well, ragdoll. And best of all, she never, ever, bit or scratched anyone.

Except for me, that one time. And I deserved it.

  • Talking With the Animals

Do you talk to your pets? Of course you do. Do they talk back? Of course they do. So you know I’m not crazy when I say that Daisy and I chatted routinely, solved the world’s problems, and occasionally fought like cat and dog. She spoke perfect English, except when other humans were around. I accepted her shyness; she welcomed my wit. 

She always knew when you were talking about her, of course. She’d look at you, then look away with a slow neck roll, perk back her ears in embarrassment, and then maybe saunter out of the room like Nancy Sinatra in stunning little white boots—as if to remind you that Mother Nature remains the best designer of all time.

I often yelled playfully at her, “HERE, KITTY KITTY KITTY!!!” like Grandma did on the South Dakota farm. Daisy would come running, like a good kitty, or, in her later years, lazily stare me down. (She won all stare-downs.) If she’d had a long day, she’d just say, “That’s enough, Horse.” (She called me Horse.) “I’m trying to get some rest here.” She liked to rest. Who doesn’t?

  • Where Does the Time Go?

The years passed. The kids grew up shamelessly. More and more, they came and went, mostly went, and increasingly found Daisy to be less fascinating than, say, a gaggle of friends or a shattered cell-phone screen. But she rarely complained so long as she had food, water, and a clean litter box. Smart, no?

I became her favorite house pet as the crib shrank from 4 to 1.5. She never strayed.

She wasn’t afraid to ask candid questions, like, “Where’d everybody go, Horse? Where did the time go? You said Prince said, ‘Ain’t nuthin’ but a party y’all!’”

“I know, right?” was my sometimes come-back when stymied, as reality gradually looted my intellect while she became evermore savvy and sassy. She hated human patter that made no sense. “I know right? Seriously?” she scolded me one night some years ago, “You people can barely communicate—just emojis and bickering. And by the way, thanks for ruining our planet.”

“I know, right?” I snapped back in lame defense. Yet she was probably right when she replied, “That’s not funny, Horse.” Perhaps she could foresee the Earth’s cancer, not to mention my own. The animals know.

When my lymphoma hit, Daisy showed me how to arch my back, stand tall, and stare down. She became my lead cheerleader, “Cancer? Schmancer! You got this, Horse—and you can use that phrase in your writing; you’re welcome!” she asserted. I barked back, “What do you mean, ‘I got this?’ I got cancer? I got a cure? That makes no sense, Daisy. You animals can barely communicate!”

“I know right?” she snapped back, and slapped her tail with a thwack that would make any beaver jealous. And such was the nature of our conversations, for years on end. Until the end.

  • The Darkest Night

On the night I thought my 9th life might be at risk, she was there, thank God. I’d skated through 5 chemos, tackled more steroids than the NFL, endured enough spinal taps to join The Band, devoured all the full-on full-head radiation modern medicine will allow, and then basked in a triumphant celebration.

Then it all got to me. I got sick. Very sick. Just like they said I would. For a long, long time. On the darkest night, the fever/chills cycle became so horrible I could only pray. Stay strong. Carry on. Just make morning. You got this.

Daisy was praying too. But in a quiet, Lutheran-Ragdoll sort of way. “You doin’ alright, Horse?” she asked more than once. “Never better, Dr. Daisy; shall we do shots?” I babbled in my stupor. She said no more, and knew better than to start a snark-fight at a time like this.

As that night’s sweat-freeze cycle kept repeating, I fell into bed and eventually discovered a brilliant idea: Take searing hot baths in the deep Jacuzzi when quaking with cold. So I’d boil a while, flail myself out, and then stumble back to bed. Then would come the shivering again—so violent I thought my bones might break. So I’d crawl back to the hot bath. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. I lost count how many times I went back and forth.

And so it went for hours. Until. Until such time as I found myself in the tub, steaming like a teabag, too weak to get out, and hallucinating.

I saw demons. Junior high bullies. Screeching giant bats, scorching fire and ice, and spinning walls. There was a certain sick bliss about almost passing out, maybe going under. Might be nice, the hereafter. They say drowning is quite peaceful. And after all, there are only so many options. Bring it on. We got this…

Then I realized something: I must get out. NOW. Or, this might be the end. THE end. Of the story. Which sounded great, except… Really? I mean, it’s one thing to succumb to a valiant fight with cancer. But…drowning in a bathtub? That’s just stupid rock star choke. Embarrassing, really. Daisy would not be pleased.

  • Stay Still

Somehow, I got out. But in my near-coma frailty, I fell forward and took the shower curtain with me. So I fought it like a drunken sailor until I became untangled in the hallway, crawled my way back to bed, and climbed up. My head was reeling and my body quaking. But I swore to myself I would not go anywhere. No matter what.

My cell phone was there, so I grabbed it in desperation. I almost dialed friends-on-call, but what could they do? I started pressing 911, but—No! The endless questions. The bright lights. The body yanking, to say nothing of those nasty EKG stickers that rip your flesh off when they finally set you free.

  • Cats Worry Too

Once back in bed, the hallucinations and spins intensified—until the most twisted illusion of all happened: Daisy came to the door. She sat down and stared. And then you know what she said? You won’t believe this. Daisy said…“Meow.” I ignored it—assuming I’d simply lost my mind. But then she said it again: “Meow.”

I screamed—and fought with fists against the dark air. I could handle hissing snakes and dessert blizzards, but to see my cat unable to speak English? The horror! The horror! Slowly, and meekly, she just kept saying it, “Meow…meow…meow…”

People say you can’t train cats. But that’s not true, at least in Daisy’s case. And the most important thing she had learned is that the Kitty is not allowed on the bed. Never! Call me fastidious, call me hard-ass, but that’s the kind of guy I am.

Yet that night, everything was different. I could tell she was scared, worried. And it’s one thing to suffer yourself, but to drag others along? It ain’t right. So I gave in. I found my speaking voice and gurgled, “It’s okay Daisy. Come here…” and tapped the bed three times.

She jumped up. She cuddled in happily. I draped my wet arm on her velvet fur, and she started to purr. She didn’t care that I was dripping and the bed was drenched. In fact, she thought the whole situation was just swell.

Neither of us moved, except for my occasional shivers. We never slept. We never spoke. She just purred calmly, with a million heartbeats of hope.

When the daylight finally broke, such as it does (or doesn’t) roundabout in the dead of winter, my fever had also broken mostly. So I weakly uttered. “Well, that was fun, right, Daisy?” “I know right?” she head-butted back and then hopped off the bed, no doubt relieved to move on.

When I fumbled my way into the hallway, a flooded carpet and splayed shower curtain were in my way. “Did you do this, Daisy? You better clean it up?” I tried to shout. But she heard nothing, and had likely already trotted off to the utility room to check out her beloved food dish.

  • The Final Daze

Fast-forward to 2019. As this year’s winter dragged on, like a war, and a stubborn spring stayed away, Daisy and I again logged ample time on the recliner. A few years ago, she was there because she knew I was sick. Of late, she was there because she became the sick one, and sensed our time together was ending. We savored our final conversations.

“I gotta warn ya, Horse,” she yawned one night not long ago, “I’m feeling awfully tired, and I’m not sure you can save me like I did you. Geez, I wish cats got 10.” “Me too, Daisy,” I agreed softly, “Me too…”

“I think you mean, meowtoo, Horse,” she countered, ever the comedian. “You win, Daisy,” I laughed and we high-fived. After a pause, I continued, “It’s been a good life, Daisy, but you need some rest. Some peace…” She thought about it as I stroked the softest fur in the world.

“I see where you’re going with this. Rest? Peace? You’ve still got it, Horse!” she snorted. “I know right?” was all I could say, staying stoic. She smirked, and then reflected, “It’s going to be awfully quiet around here, Horse; you’re really gonna miss me…” I was speechless, until I whispered a strained, “I know. And thanks for everything, Daisy” with a kiss on her neck. And so we hung out, not wanting this particular night to end, half-watching late shows until our eyes slid shut.

  • Pushing Up Daisies

The house is indeed quieter now. I still expect her to meet me at the door, or at least open one eye when I enter the house. I try to resist talking to myself, but sometimes imagine her clever replies from the recliner. Occasionally, I sense a gentle, faint “Meow,” as if to remind me that everything’s going to be alright.

Daisy didn’t really cure my cancer, of course. But she got me through my longest night, which may have saved my life.

Thankfully, my daughter said yes when I asked her if she’d like to accompany me on a very challenging errand. And so Daisy passed peacefully, surrounded by her two loved ones.

Afterward, the skies cried. We weren’t ready to go home to an empty house, so we dined at the neighborhood supper club, where the good people served us complimentary beverages, a huge slice of chocolate cake, and some heartfelt compassion.

A small terra-cotta plaque imprinted with DAISY and her paw-prints now rests on the mantle, overlooking her favorite place atop our recliner.

Good kitty.

Daisy the Cat, 2006 – 2019
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A Cancer-Free, Happy New Year!

Posted on: Wednesday, January 16th, 2019
Posted in: SoulTrain | 4 comments

NOTE TO READERS: This is the 25th cancer-related essay on BreakAway since announcing 2+ years ago. Your reading and support marks this milestone and has helped this Survivor get this far. THANK YOU!

  • After the party

HNY! While others were making the rounds of holiday parties, I was making my medical rounds with Mr. Monkey. Santa skipped me this year, I can’t imagine why. But I got the best-est gift of all: NO SIGN OF DISEASE. My doctors grinned. Mr. Monkey wept. And into the arms of The Future I leapt.

  • Test jitters   

I keep thinking the test cycle will change and become more breezy. But instead, this time brought a blizzard of jitters. Maybe it’s the season—the holidays usher in ghosts of Christmases past and the dismal darkness of December. Maybe it’s cancer flashbacks—the clinics trigger gloomy memories and forever feature real, live cancer sufferers. Maybe Mr. Monkey was the wrong companion—as comedy sidekicks go, he didn’t exactly kill it with impatient patients and frazzled staffers.

But hey, he was a hit with mychildren—back in the day. Tastes change, I guess.

I brought Mr. Monkey because I’ve grown weary of one question medical humans often ask: “Are you alone?” I suppose they ask because, if they deliver bad news, they want someone to sneak you out ASAP so they can stay on schedule, obscure the drama, and save on Kleenex. But it gets annoying anyhow.

So this time, I had my snappy one-liners ready. “I’m NOT alone, obviously. I’m with Mr. Monkey!” Or, “No, my caravan of immigrants is on the way.” Or, “No, my evil twin is right behind you…don’t look!”

  • Beware of Kirk imposters

One thing that won’t change: Waiting rooms remain strange. I have my rituals. Like, bring many diversions, choose a window view, and sit away from the masses. This time, that was a bad idea. You see, the door that takes you into the scanning suite is high-security. So when the nurse opened Oz and called, “Kirk? Kirk?” I waved and gathered up my stuff. BUT—imagine this—the elderly gentleman right by the door popped up and beamed “That’s me!” And away they went.

Who ever heard of such a thing? I mean, typically a guy isn’t all that eager to visit Scan City, have an IV jackhammered into the arm, and be given 32 ounces of blech® to drink in an hour (“sip it like a martini!” said this cycle’s clearly lush-y orderly). But…things change. I suddenly found myself pounding on the door shouting, “Hey! That guy stole my spot! What if you confuse our cancers and give me his chemo?”

The check-in clerk watched me from afar with that look that says, “What is wrong with you?

Eventually, they corrected the situation. When they returned the jolly old man, the nurse explained, “He’s hard of hearing. That’s why he sits by the door. His name is Bert. HE THOUGHT I SAID BERT!” she shouted at him. So they laughed and bobbed their heads as though this were the best joke on open-stage night. I slapped my knee and bobbed along.

“Hi, I’m Bert!” said my new friend. So I replied, “Hi Bert, I’m Ernie” with swift wit. The nurse frowned. And Bert automatically blurted, “What’s that? You’re who? I can’t really hear you…” And we left him there to steal other people’s scans.

  • When dread goes dozy

On the next day, when the oncology reckoning came with Dr. Zen, the unusually packed waiting room meant wait…wait…and waiting room. So I took one of the remaining seats—and was overcome by a rare, omnipotent need to nap.

Maybe when the stress maxes out, you pass out.

I became like that guy who can’t stay awake in church. I tried the position with your head hanging—and eventually toppled over like a tree. Then I slept with my head in my hands—until they gave out and I tipped onto the nice lady next to me. Then I slid my body forward so I could put my head on the back of the chair. This worked until I began to snore and sleep-slide further forward such that no one could walk around my legs. I awoke to see the cancer crowd staring at me with irked expressions, while one group was trying to wheel Grandma around or over me. I’m pretty sure she thwacked me with her cane.

“Sorry,” I said, “I guess I’m pretty tired.” “We’re ALL tired,” said someone (who was not a monkey) from Grandma’s entourage. “Get a room!” snarled Grandma as she wheeled by, perhaps not aware of what that expression typically means. I was tempted to “accidentally” flick her wig off, but then was overcome by a slap of compassion.

  • “Do you realize…”

I look forward to when this routine becomes humdrum. But maybe that will never change. And maybe that’s okay, because it offers fresh adventures for my cancer journey and updated inspirations for my cancer comedy career. Not to mention…these scenes force new opportunities to work on grace, grit, and gratitude—survival virtues that can always use a tune-up.

When the appointments subside and the good news settles in, the gray grass seems a little greener. Stepping in frozen dog poop elicits a shrug, not a curse. The crusty lake ice seems perfect for a sundown skate, after all, and the sky rewards with a brilliant explosion of colors.

(Do you realize the sun never really goes down. Stay tuned…)

Mr. Monkey survived his cancer scare and has returned to hibernating in the ever-shrinking bin of my children’s memorabilia. I’ve returned to the (almost) flashback-free reality that is life between Testing Time. And blessings like friends, family, and music remain the vital remedies to weather life’s storms and to heal life’s ills.

As the Flaming Lips so sagely sing,

“Do you realize that life goes fast,
It’s hard to make the good things last,
You realize the sun doesn’t go down,
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.”

Change. It’s the only constant in life. I got this.

Thanks for listening…

PS Got 4m? Please click that Lips’ lyric/vid link. You’ll be glad you did.

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